Why are we suddenly having a full-blown culture war right now? Why is the news so dominated by gay marriage and abortion and the Confederate flag and witch hunts against supposedly sexist scientists? With all of the big economic and foreign policy issues still hanging out there, from ObamaCare to the debt to the impending bankruptcy of Social Security disability, to this administration’s disastrous capitulation to Iran, and so on—why are these the issues that seem to be taking up ever more of our time?
I don’t deny that the culture war issues can be important in their own right. Part of the reason we’re debating them is because, as I have argued before, political correctness is making a big comeback, and the speech codes and standards of cultural conformity that have been tested in the universities are now being expanded to cover the rest of the country. On the other side, opposition to abortion is a permanent, abiding issue that waits only for a news hook, however dubious, to revive it.
But that still doesn’t explain how those issues are becoming so dominant, particularly this year. I think the other half of the explanation is the fact that there is relatively little in the news to take attention away from those issues.
It is not simply that there is nothing going on. Domestically, the economy is still in a deep funk of seemingly permanent slow growth. The Obama administration is engaged in a slow-motion regulatory war on power plants. There is the ongoing battle for control of the Middle East and the ominous growth of the Islamic State, along with the consequences of letting billions of new dollars flow into Iran’s coffers, which it will use to replenish the arsenals of its clients.
Yet from what I can tell, none of that is taking up quite as much of the debate as it seems it should. And the reason is simple: none of these developments are part of any kind of normal political debate right now. By that I mean that they are not subjects where the outcomes are likely to be influenced by a public debate.
When it comes to domestic economic policy, or the budget, or the welfare state, or immigration or global warming or a whole host of topics, nothing of any significance is going to get through Congress. Republicans have too much power for the Democrats to push their agenda, but Republicans don’t have enough power to challenge a presidential veto. So legislation on the big issues is going nowhere.
This implies that just about everything that’s actually going to happen in national-level politics is going to be happening by executive fiat, by the president using, or attempting to use, his unilateral power. We’ve already seen this on immigration, and we’re going to see a lot more of it on global warming, as the EPA settles into the job of regulating carbon dioxide emissions. And of course, we’re seeing it in foreign policy, where the Constitution actually does give the president the bulk of the decision-making power. So if President Obama decides to distance us from Israel and Eastern Europe while seeking friendlier relations with Iran and Cuba, there’s not much Congress can do to stop him. And with his last election behind him, President Obama is showing an increasing willingness to simply do what he wants on all of these issues, without even the pretense of seeking political consensus or worrying about opposing views.
What doesn’t get done by executive fiat will be done by the courts, as in the Supreme Court’s recent rulings on ObamaCare and gay marriage. But the overall feeling is the same: we watch people make their best arguments to the court, and we speculate on how it might rule, but we have no real illusion that convincing the public about the merits or demerits of any particular policy is going to make any difference to the outcome. It will all be decided by people who are beyond our influence.
In effect, politics is a spectator sport right now. We can speculate about outcomes and project their consequences, but our talking doesn’t influence any of it. It’s not participatory—not for the public, and not for those of us who write and talk with the hope of convincing the public.
This is very dangerous over the long term. One of the things Alexis de Tocqueville liked to point out about the difference between the American and European systems of government is that the American viewed himself as a participant in the political arena, while the subjects of Europe’s monarchical regimes tended to view themselves merely as interested observers. Watching politics, for them, was like watching the weather. The outcome affected you, but there was nothing you could do about it.
This sucks the vibrancy and urgency out of the political debate—and it diverts some of that energy over to issues where we can have a direct influence. If all we can do is talk about the issues but not really influence them, then we will focus on those areas where how we talk is the issue. We can’t influence whether President Obama cuts a bad deal with Iran or imposes absurdly restrictive regulations on power plants. But we can influence whether people refer to Bruce Jenner as “she.” So we will put less energy into the first kind of issue and more energy into the second. Idle minds are the culture war’s workshop.
As I’ve observed before, the culture wars will always be with us in some form, because there’s always someone who wants to change the culture, and there’s always someone who wants to preserve it. But we’re going to be fighting about it a lot more this year—in part because of all the other important things we’re not fighting over.